April 15th, 2008

in motion

heartening proof

It's been a long time since I read John Gardner's On Becoming A Novelist, but I remember thrilling to his portrait of writing as a noble calling, a life of meaning and artistic purpose.  It was rich stuff: principled, passionate beliefs combined with a practical nuts-and-bolts approach to the technical craft. 

And of course, I am still a complete sucker for the romance of it; see this bit from On Becoming a Novelist:

If, on the other hand, you miserably fail, you have only three choices: start over, or start something else, or quit.

Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn't quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or "way," an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world.

Gardner is on my mind today because of an essay, "Notes from the Underground", by Stewart O'Nan (courtesy of the Tiptree-licious Ms. Gwenda Bond). O'Nan writes about finding stacks of early drafts while doing research in the Gardner archives:
But the one set of drafts that meant the most to me was that of Grendel. A boxful. I wanted to see that wonderful first sentence, the first time he came up with the cascade and cadence of it.

The first draft didn't have it. It was a different sentence, a bad one. Laughably bad.

Later, he pencilled in what would become the first sentence, but it was nowhere near what I presumed--foolishly--was the original. It was just as clunky and atrocious as the other one. Draft after draft, he'd crafted that opening so it seemed natural, seemed to flow from Grendel's throat and his pen effortlessly.

I'd heard how hard writers worked at revising, but here was concrete and heartening proof. I'd been impatient with my work because my early drafts lacked depth and precision; now I realized I had completely misjudged them, and misjudged the effort required to write well. It was not brilliance or facility that was necessary, but the determination to bear and even enjoy the dull process of wading into one's own bad prose again, one more time, and then once again, with the utmost concentration and taste, looking for opportunities to mine deeper....

(I think a bit of brilliance and facility helps too, but let's start with the assumption that we are all wonderfully clever people with oodles of worthwhile things to say and stories to tell, shall we?  Yes, let's do.)

Exactly what I needed to read, this week.  I hope it's good for you too.